I first heard about the ‘Milgram Obedience Experiments’ in an entry level undergraduate psychology course. This experiment along with the notorious ‘Little Albert’ conditioned-fear study and the infamous ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ were highlighted as examples of unethical practices in testing. Pretty shocking stuff (pardon the pun) they got away with back in the good old days.
Yet aside from the ethical issues, there was something else that stuck with me from the Milgram experiment in particular. It was one of the profound conclusions he drew about human nature and how this echoed the words of the ancient yogis. I’ll get to that in just a moment but first, let’s take a brief look at what he did.
Milgram placed ads in the newspaper calling for volunteers to be paid participants in what they thought was a study on learning at Yale University. The Participant would be paired with a partner and they would each draw slips of paper to determine who would be the ‘teacher’ and who would be the ‘learner’. The draw was rigged such that the Participant always ended up playing the role of the teacher while the partner played the learner. Unbeknownst to the Participant, the partner was not a random participant but actually an accomplice of Dr. Milgram and only pretended to play the role of the learner.
The learner’s task was to memorize specific word pairings while the teacher’s job was to deliver shocks to the learner via a shock machine every time a mistake was made. The teacher sat in a room in front of a shock machine while the learner, supposedly hooked up to receive shocks, sat in an adjacent room.
The experiment was deliberately set up so that the learner would at some point make error after error. And through this, in accordance with the rules set out at the beginning of the experiment, the teacher was to deliver progressively stronger shocks.
Now to be clear, the Participant actually thought he was shocking the learner (i.e. Milgram's accomplice in disguise) who was purposefully locked out-of-sight, but not out of ear-shot, in an adjacent room. To make things even more interesting and clearly more stressful on the Participant, the learner would yell out in pain “stop”, “I have a heart condition”, and “let me out” as the shocks got stronger.
Under the guise of testing the effect of shocks on enhancing learning, Milgram was researching the extent to which one would obey an instruction even if it involved harming another.
What Milgram proved, and what was subsequently duplicated and confirmed on many occasions, was that there is a point where humans surrender authority to a higher power and simply act as the instrument, carrying out the orders of head, the law of the land, the policies of the company, and so on.
It is as if at some point, we allow the awareness to shut off;
we allow ourselves to get pushed and pulled into directions we would normally not go.
Milgram saw conformity again, albeit in a much more benign way, when he had his psych students stand on the road and look up into the sky even though there was nothing special to look at. Sure enough, passersby would also stop and stare and that would draw the curiosity of more and more people. (Maybe that’s where big city nightclubs got the idea to make people line up outside, in the cold, even though the clubs were empty inside!)
Other scientists such as Solomon Asch in his ‘Conformity Experiment’ showed how groupthink could override our better judgment. In what probably seems incomprehensible to most of us, participants would answer a simple, obvious question incorrectly if those who went before him all answered in the same incorrect way. Again, this is even if the answer was visibly false and against the participant’s better judgment.
By now you may be asking how these experiments relate to yoga and wellness. For that, let’s turn to one of Milgram’s profound conclusions.
Milgram was sure that the participants in his obedience experiment were not inherently evil. He even noted that they all showed visible signs of stress and of wanting to stop dispensing high levels of shock to the learner. But the giving into authority and continued obedience to the plan was too powerful a force for many.*
Milgram found that pulling and playing on our unconscious is what overrides rational thinking.
He also surmised the simple solution:
Awareness of ourselves and of our unconscious mind can help us to achieve freedom.
Milgram’s words reflected those of ancient Seers and Thinkers. The great Yogis, Saints and Sages warned us that an untamed mind will only cause misery and suffering. Yoga and the related science of meditation and mindfulness were the tools they developed to help untie us from this bondage.
Modern day Wellness, when approached in its intended holistic nature, asks us to become more aware of our life and lifestyle - physical, mental, social - and our environment. Wellness asks us to find the habits that are pulling us out of health and wellbeing. Wellness then insists we counteract these unwelcome gravitational pulls by creating and cultivating new, helpful routines.
In other words, walking the path of Wellness is akin to pursuing self-awareness. Through self-awareness comes a liberation from the unconscious pulls that override our rational judgment and a resilience to the vicissitudes of life.
*Note: Milgram was originally inspired by the WWII Nuremberg War Criminal / Genocide trials and the defendants’ claims that they were ‘just following orders’.